BVU Tech Trek participants

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The following students participated in the weeklong Tech Trek camp in July at Buena Vista University:

• Maddy Courtright, of Storm Lake

• Megan Courtright, of Storm Lake

• Claudia Tapia, of Alta

• Lydia Whitmore, of Storm Lake

• Autumn Wunschel, of Lakeside

Mandi Johnson, a 2016 Buena Vista University graduate, spent a week’s vacation at her alma mater this month serving as a volunteer camp counselor, doing work she deems vitally important.

She worked at Tech Trek, an engaging one-week summer camp for incoming eighth-grade girls featuring hands-on science and technology classes, fun and educational field trips, and opportunities to meet inspiring women role models who excel in areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, the “STEM” fields.

Women role models like Johnson, lab tech for the Renewable Energy Group (REG) in Ralston, took part.

“I work in an industry that’s predominantly male,” says Johnson, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology. “I can tell these girls that they can succeed in the field even if they’re told otherwise.”

There are 20 persons working at REG in Ralston. Johnson is one of four women at the site.

“It’s a great place to work,” she says. “I really like my job.”

Johnson, who has given of her time in three of the four Tech Trek experiences at BVU, says she’s motivated by the young people she sees coming through each year.

BVU alum Steph Wilhelm, the University’s registrar who earned a distributive degree in accounting and computer science, has instructed at Tech Trek. She’s also been assistant director and now serves as director for a program that brings 32 students from all over Iowa to spend a week with counselors and professors, diving into subjects such as lake clarity, cyber security, renewable energy, business ownership, and more.

“It is so enjoyable to see kids see something or someone and say, ‘Wow! I can do that,’” Wilhelm says.

Emma Jenness, who will be an eighth-grader at Woodbury Central says the camp has her eager to learn more. “I think it’s really fun to learn about cyber security and to think about how we can protect ourselves from computer hackers,” says Jenness. “I thought this might be boring stuff, but it’s really fun to learn about.”

Rebekah Vaverek, of Humboldt, grew excited learning binary code, making bracelets from the digits (zeroes and ones) in that code.

Beyond learning, there are social aspects covered through a week of stay in the BVU dormitories.

“I thought I’d be really shy, but I’ve been pretty social,” says Vaverek, a Bishop Garrigan Middle School student. “I really like my roommate from Storm Lake St. Mary’s. We even taught her how to swim.”

They went swimming and participated in other activities when not on field trips to a wind farm, a county park, and more.

“Experiences like this are needed to keep encouraging girls,” says Wilhelm, who also possesses a master’s degree. “One of the best aspects of this camp is that most of our participants pay nothing to attend for a week, while some pay a total of $50. We’ve gotten grants to underwrite the camp all four years.”

For this group, the payoff could happen immediately with a surge in STEM interest. Or, one might see it eventually as more and more young women enter the sciences, computer technology, and engineering.

“Lots of girls come her having never programmed or worked in computer language,” Wilhelm says. “Tech Trek gives them a taste of all sorts of career experiences and they have fun while they’re learning and getting that important exposure.”